There are a few things I didn’t expect to be doing while in India. Teaching the music of Justin Bieber is one of them.
Some background first: As part of my Fulbright grant I’m doing a little teaching at the Gundecha Brothers’ Gurukul. I offer a lecture every few weeks or so. I’ll be covering a variety of topics throughout the year, including an overview of Western classical music, some basic Western music notation, tuning (including Just Intonation and Equal Temperament), and basic orchestration.
This has put me in the curious position of being an ambassador for Western music to the Indians. I say “curious” because back home it is the reverse: I am often an ambassador for Indian music to my Western students and colleagues. Misunderstandings abound on either side. Many of my Indian friends believe that all Western classical music is in equal temperament, that there is no improvisation in our tradition, our music is entirely technical and devoid of feeling, and there is no melody. All false. My Western friends believe that Indian classical music is out of tune (actually the reverse is true, it’s often more in tune than most Western music), that there is little variety in Indian music, the voice culture is unrefined, and that Indian musicians don’t use notation at all. Again, all false.
Indeed, it seems that my career has more and more taken the shape of being a kind of negotiator between the two traditions. I’m even building a major non-profit organization right now with my brilliant colleague Reena Esmail, in which we will focus on artists who have created a whole new kind of music that brings together the two traditions in meaningful ways. We are planning festivals, educational experiences, etc. More on that later.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Justin Bieber.
Umakant Gundecha’s son is named Nirant, though everyone calls him Niru. Niru is in his early 20s and he LOVES popular music and wants to learn more about Western pop music. So I’m teaching him the basics of Western notation so that he can learn to read a lead sheet. I’m also encouraging him to learn some different software so that he can be more effective in a studio. I’ll eventually teach him some drums if we can find a drum set. Finally, he wants to learn more about songwriting.
My area of specialty is classical music, but I’ve done some work with singer-songwriters, so I have an idea of how things work in that world. The first step to learning how to write a pop song is to see how other people have done it. So, pretty soon I will have Niru transcribe some Justin Bieber songs (his favorite artist) and we’ll analyze them. We’ll use both the Indian Bhatkande notation system that he knows, in parallel with Western notation. That way he can reinforce his Western reading skills. After we’ve analyzed a few tunes, he’ll try to make some of his own.
Again, something I NEVER expected to be doing in India!